August 12, 2022

Florida Trend's Floridian of the Year

Fla. Newsmakers of 2009

People who made an impact in business, economy, science, environment, government, education, sports, philanthropy, media and our fallen soldiers.

Business and the Economy
» Rasesh Thakkar / John Hitt

Thakkar & Hitt
UCF President John Hitt (right) told Rasesh Thakkar in 2005 that he wanted UCF to have a biomedical sciences school. What followed is history. [Photo: Amy Mikler]

Rasesh Thakkar
Senior managing director,
Tavistock Group

Bio: The former UCF grad joined Tavistock in 1987. "When I left this campus, I went out traveling the world looking for opportunities," Thakkar told a group of UCF graduates at a 2007 convocation ceremony. "Today, the world comes here to UCF looking for opportunities."

Personal Struggle: Thakkar's battle with lymphoma at age 28 had a major impact on his life. Thakkar knows the chemotherapy protocol he received kept him alive. "When you lay there in your hospital bed and face your mortality, you realize, had I been born 10 years earlier, I may not be alive were it not for the medical discoveries made. That's pretty profound, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that drives me quite a bit."

This past year saw the culmination of years of effort that went into creating a "Medical City" in southeast Orlando — a bustling new biomed hub predicted to transform central Florida's economy. UCF's College of Medicine welcomed its charter class in August. California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research opened the doors of its new facility in October. UCF's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, which is also home to the new M.D. Anderson Orlando Cancer Research Institute, opened as well. And both Nemours Children's Hospital and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center broke ground last year.

Perhaps the two most significant leaders in the evolution of the 600-acre complex are University of Central Florida President John Hitt and Senior Managing Director Rasesh "Sesh" Thakkar of the Tavistock Group.

The seeds for Medical City were planted back in 2005, when the two found their interests overlapped. Hitt told Thakkar he saw a biomedical sciences school at the university as vital to growing the school's research capacity. Thakkar says he was "stunned" to learn from Hitt that universities with medical schools attract an average of more than $200 million in research funding — nearly three times what a typical university without a medical school attracts.

John Hitt
President, University of Central Florida

Bio: The Texas native was named president of UCF in 1992 after having held academic, administrative or executive positions at Tulane University, Texas Christian University, Bradley University and the University of Maine.

Major Accomplishments: In addition to boosting the university's academic profile and spearheading the new medical school at UCF, Hitt is credited with adding an on-campus football stadium, a new arena and more campus housing.

Growth: This year, UCF's enrollment hit 53,500, making UCF the largest university in Florida and the third-largest in the country. The school's bragging rights also extend to the quality of students attending there. The 2009 incoming freshman class had an average SAT score of 1225, an average GPA of 3.8 and included 55 National Merit scholars. "We've had a very good year in growing to meet the needs of Florida in higher education."

Why Med Schools Matter: "You don't find a bioscience cluster around anything but a medical school."

At the time, Tavistock was looking for opportunities to develop 7,000 acres the company owned in southeast Orlando, and Thakkar thought that "having it located at Lake Nona as part of a comprehensive health sciences campus" could be a "great spark" for the formation of a life sciences cluster in the Orlando region. Tavistock Group owner and billionaire Joe Lewis got behind the effort, and in October 2005 Tavistock announced it would donate $12.5 million and 50 acres for the school to establish a UCF healthcare campus at Lake Nona.

A year later, Tavistock donated an additional 50 acres and $18 million for a facility for Burnham. With those anchors in place — and with additional support from the state, county and Orlando's business community — UCF's health and life sciences campus evolved, and in addition to the facilities that have opened or broken ground, there will also be a new University of Florida Academic and Research Center.

Hailed by some as potentially the biggest thing to hit central Florida since Disney World, the medical cluster is projected to create more than 30,000 jobs and have a $7.6-billion impact over the next decade. As Thakkar told Florida Trend last October, "Money follows scientists. Then money follows money. Then it grows from there."
— Amy Keller

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